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China’s Favorite Idols Then and Now: Comparing the Stars of the Past Two Decades

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While China continues to struggle with attaining the kind of pop culture cache on the global stage that neighbors South Korea and Japan enjoy, the country’s stars are increasingly making waves internationally. But who are the leading lights in this new generation of industry-hopping idols and how do they compare to some of the bigger names of yesteryear — the Jackie Chans, Gong Lis, and Zhang Ziyis — and will they have those stars’ staying power?

Here’s our run-down of some of China’s most popular music groups, actors and pop idols, along with some of the prominent predecessors who helped pave the way for them.

Boybands: Mayday vs TFBoys 

Mayday TFBoys Chinese Idols

THEN Taiwanese pop rock band Mayday (五月天) were formed in the late ’90s by a group of school friends, registering the band name so that they could play at a local festival. With the release of their debut record, the imaginatively named Mayday’s First Album, the group established a major following. With few comparable acts at the time in mainland China, Mayday became one of the most-talked about Mandarin language bands of the early ’00s.  

The band have continued to be a huge phenomenon throughout the Chinese speaking world, performing tours and releasing singles to this day. The group’s uplifting and positive vibes have influenced millions of young people and they remain one of the most popular bands in China.

NOW Interestingly, one of China’s most successful boybands of the past decade, TFBoys, were catapulted to fame in 2013 with a cover of a Mayday song, “洋蔥Onion.” That single was released when two of the mainland group’s members, Roy Wang and Karry Wang, were just 13 years old. The group’s third and final member, Jackson Yee, was later added to the line-up and, over the coming years, the fresh-faced trio grew up in the public eye, being forced to navigate a whirlwind of major TV appearances, arena concerts, fanatical followings and political expectations.

Now on the cusp of their twenties, the three members of the group have attempted some interesting career moves. Yee has been carving out an acting career, appearing in the popular TV show The Longest Day in Chang’an, as well as bullying-focused coming-of-age movie, Better Days. Roy Wang meanwhile recently appeared in Wang Xiaoshuai’s gritty One Child Policy-centered So Long, My Son, a film that has picked up a number of awards and nominations around the world since its release in 2019. Karry Wang, meanwhile, is one of the wealthiest people in the world born after 1990 and has been able to juggle a solo music career with acting and remaining part of the TFBoys. 

Related: 

TFBoys to Men: Pop Propaganda and the Growing Pains of China’s Biggest Boy Band

Girl Groups: S.H.E. vs THE9

SHE The9 Chinese Idols

THEN With some of the best-selling singles and albums since the early 2000s, Taiwanese trio S.H.E. (Selina, Hebe and Ella) dominated the mainland airwaves with their catchy pop for at least a decade. They released their debut album Girl Dorm in 2001 after emerging from a TV talent show and went on to amass a string of hits as part of a Taiwanese Mandopop golden age that also featured Jay Chou and Jolin Tsai (more on them below).

The three have dabbled in solo careers since — with Hebe’s being perhaps the most successful — in addition to periodically reuniting for new S.H.E. material, but the group have long been assured a permanent place in the hearts of a certain generation of mainland Chinese. 

NOW Two decades on and another group of variety show graduates are the most popular Mandopop girl group in China. THE9 came out of streaming platform iQIYI’s hugely-popular show Youth With You 2 (青春有你2) and in some ways demonstrate how much — and perhaps how little — pop music in China has evolved since the early 2000s.  

Swapping S.H.E.’s cutesy sisterhood feel for sleek attitude-heavy vibes, THE9 is very much a product of China’s uber-prevalent idol culture. However, such is the nature of that game, the nine members of the group all appear to have an eye on their own solo careers, despite the group only being in its infancy. With the ever-changing dynamics of pop music in China and the example of short-lived Tencent-made girl group Rocket Girls 101 (火箭女孩101) in the rearview mirror, whether THE9 can really achieve the staying power of Selina, Hebe and Ella seems far from certain.

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Nevertheless, one interesting parallel with S.H.E. has been the discussions around femininity and “tomboy” appearances that THE9 have helped spark. Back in the early ’00s, Ella was “the tomboy one.” Fast-forward to 2020 and THE9’s leader Liu Yuxin has caused a stir over her androgynous appearance and fashion sense, while also prompting praise from Lisa of K-pop group Blackpink, one of the judges on Youth With You 2.

Mandopop Kings: Jay Chou vs Kris Wu

Jay Chou Kris Wu Chinese Idols

THEN Jay Chou has been doing it for 20 years now. With the release of his viral track “Mojito” earlier this year, Chou proved that his music may never go out of fashion and — like some of the other “then” contenders on this list, he’s still very much a “now” celebrity as well. The Taiwanese heart-throb got his start back in 2000, with the release of his debut album Jay, which earned him the award for Best Pop Vocal Album at the 12th Golden Melody Awards. His second album, Fantasy, propelled him further into the spotlight, earning him five awards at the following year’s Golden Melody Awards and ensuring his music became mainstays of playlists on both sides of the Taiwan Strait for years to come. 

Chou has been known to dabble in a range of musical styles from around the world, including bossanova, blues and Spanish guitar, but he’s also consistently worked in traditional Chinese instrumentation and lyrics and looks that reference ancient Chinese scenes. 

NOW This theme has been one that former EXO member and current Rap of China judge, Kris Wu, has picked up and run with. An influential figure on the modern music landscape in China, Wu has been at pains to create what he sees as a kind of hip hop with Chinese characteristics, weaving in traditional Chinese cultural elements in his music — alongside some ridiculous raps about noodles

Part of China’s “little fresh meat” wave of hot young male idols, Wu has experienced considerable crossover success in the international market, working with the likes of Travis Scott and Rich the Kid. In 2018, his debut solo album Antares roared to the top of the US iTunes charts, courting accusations that his fans had used bots to knock Ariana Grande off number one. 

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Since then, a spate of variety show appearances, a slew of advertising deals and a few singles, such as “Coffee” with fellow former EXO member Luhan, have kept Kris Wu’s name all over the entertainment news pages.

Mandopop Queens: Jolin Tsai vs G.E.M.

GEM Jolin Tsai Chinese Idols

THEN Jolin Tsai has rightfully become known as not only the Queen of Mandopop, but also as the “queen of reinvention,” after multiple makeovers and comebacks. Tsai is famous for continuously changing her own music style and image, exploring electronic elements such as synth-pop and trance in addition to piano-driven ballads and good times Katy Perry-style pop. After two decades in the spotlight, the Taiwanese star has established herself as a musical icon as well as a fashion one in the Chinese-speaking world.

NOW Shanghai-born, Hong Kong-raised singer G.E.M. has also shape-shifted over the course of her career and while it may feel like she’s been around for ages to seasoned Mandopop watchers, she’s still only 29 (her career began at the age of just 16). Having risen to fame in the Chinese mainland after her second place finish in variety show I Am A Singer in 2014, she’s gone on to release a string of hit singles and has also crossed over to the judges’ seats on variety shows, including on the second and third seasons of The Rap of China.  

Action Heroes: Jackie Chan vs Wu Jing

Wu Jing Jackie Chan Chinese Idols

THEN Jackie Chan is the most famous living martial artist and perhaps one of the few truly household name Chinese stars globally. Starting his career as a child actor in the 1960s and working his way up through some kung fu classics, he crossed over to Hollywood for films such as the Rush Hour series, Shanghai Noon and Shanghai Knights. In his 60 year career, he’s acted in more than 150 films. As such, he is regarded by many as a living legend, even while his more recent politics and Party-pleasing posturing has not exactly endeared him to some audiences. 

NOW Wu Jing may not have quite the same levels of recognition internationally, but he’s a hugely bankable star back home. Wu has been at the center of a new wave of nationalistic films in China that has been so influential it’s even helped coin a phrase in global politics: “wolf warrior” is now regularly used for Chinese officials who take a more aggressive stance in international diplomacy.

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From “Little Fresh Meat” to “Wolf Warriors”: Understanding Chinese Masculinity in Pop Culture

Wu’s break-out film Wolf Warrior 2, for which he acted and also directed, became the highest grossing film ever released in China, as well as the highest grossing non-English film ever worldwide. The movie catapulted him to fame overnight after 20 years of slogging in the film industry in the shadows of the likes of Jet Li and Jackie Chan. In 2019 he appeared in three of China’s most successful films of the year: sci-fi flick The Wandering Earth, which became China’s third highest grossing film of all time; patriotic blockbuster My People, My Country; and adventure thriller, The Climbers

Iconic Couples: Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung vs Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo

Maggie Cheung Tony Leung Xiao Zhan Wang Yibo Chinese Idols

THEN Through the early 2000s, Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung established themselves as perhaps the most famous on-screen couple in the Chinese language world. 

Appearing alongside each other in films such as Zhang Yimou’s Hero and Wong Kar-wai’s 2046, the on-screen chemistry between Cheung and Leung is perhaps best exemplified in Wong’s In the Mood for Love. Arguably Wong’s best film, In the Mood for Love follows the pair as neighbors navigating failing marriages, as well as their growing affection for one another.

NOW More recently, the partnership exhibited by young male idols Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo in hit TV show The Untamed has asserted the pair of “little fresh meat” stars as one of the most-talked about on-screen partnerships of recent times. 

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The pair’s interactions in the show led to plenty of shipping among fans, some of which moved into the realm of homoerotic imagery. That in turn led to fan fiction site Ao3 getting blocked in China following a reporting campaign from sections of Xiao Zhan’s fanbase.

Alas, it therefore seems unlikely that Xiao and Wang will co-star in another major production any time soon, with the two taking slightly different paths since. Xiao Zhan continues to be dogged by allegations of bad fan management, while Wang’s popularity is on the rise through appearances on popular talent shows such as Street Dance of China.

Silver Screen Queens: Fan Bingbing vs Yang Mi

Fan Bingbing Yang Mi Chinese Idols

THEN For more than a decade, Fan Bingbing was one of the most ubiquitous and best-known stars in China. After rising up the celebrity ranks via a host of TV and movie projects — a mixture of forgettable blockbusters and occasional more indie-leaning films — for years Fan adorned billboards across the country and was pulled into productions such as X-Men: Days of Future Past and Iron Man 3 as foreign studios banked on her appeal to take them to box office success in China.  

But then of course, it all went dramatically wrong.

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Where is Fan Bingbing?

Despite numerous attempts to reboot her career, it remains unclear just when — if ever — Fan will be allowed back into the limelight following her tax evasion scandal and disappearance. But there’s been no shortage of stars looking to fill the red carpet vacuum left in her wake.

NOW Yang Mi is one such star. Her pouting performances in the successful Tiny Times movie series, as well as on a number of successful TV shows, has seen her star rise. Despite being one of China’s highest-paid actresses, her acting skills have often been called into question. In a post on China’s Quora-like website Zhihu, one user comments on Yang saying that her most impressive screen appearance is actually one of her advertisements.

Screen Divas: Gong Li vs Tang Wei

Gong Li Tang Wei Chinese Idols

THEN One of China’s best-known actors, Gong Li is another on this list who may have risen to fame some time ago, but remains a major force today. After making her debut in 1987 in what is widely-regarded as one of the finest Chinese movies of all time, Red Sorghum, Gong kicked off a long-running partnership with director Zhang Yimou. As Zhang’s muse, Gong appeared in five more of his films over the following decade, including Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern.

Her acting prowess was not limited to Zhang’s movies however, as her riveting and moving performances have gained the admiration of directors such as Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine and The Emperor and the Assassin) and Wong Kar-wai (2046), while she’s also starred in Hollywood productions such as Memoirs of a Geisha, Miami Vice and, most recently, the live-action remake of Disney’s Mulan. She has appeared in three out of the seven Mandarin-language films nominated for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film.

NOW While Gong Li is practically incomparable at this stage of her career, celebrated actress Tang Wei’s charismatic performances bear some similarities to those of her illustrious predecessor.

Tang’s breakout role came in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution in 2006, adapted from the Eileen Chang novella of the same name. While the film brought her a degree of international fame after she was selected as to star from a group of more than 10,000 actresses, the film’s sex scenes triggered a nationwide media black-out for her in China.

This didn’t defeat her, however, and she made a strong return a few years later. She’s since gone on to pick up a number of nominations in the Hong Kong Film Awards and Golden Horse Awards over the past 10 years, while in something of a reversal of her media black-out, her visage could be found across China’s major cities as a spokesperson for (ultimately controversial) coffee chain Luckin.

Silver Screen Kings: Andy Lau vs Deng Chao

Andy Lau Deng Chao Chinese Idols

THEN Andy Lau is a legendary singer and actor who has been active since the 1990s. He’s best known as one of the “Four Heavenly Kings of Cantopop,” along with fellow HK stars Jacky Cheung, Aaron Kwok and Leon Lai. While he has picked up numerous awards for singing, he has also been in more than 140 movies and has taken home prestigious awards such as the best actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards and Golden Horse Awards. His filmography includes a slew of hugely successful Hong Kong movies, plus Matt Damon-starring Zhang Yimou adventure flick The Great Wall.

The crowning moment of his career, however, was clearly collaborating with Kenny G:

NOW Not many male actors in modern China have reached Lau’s heights in terms of acting, but if there is one person close to him, it might be Deng Chao.

Deng has appeared in some of China’s most popular films, including as a business tycoon in Stephen Chow’s record-breaking 2016 movie, The Mermaid, as well as a race car driver in cult director Han Han’s 2017 offering Duckweed. His star has also risen as a result of his appearances in popular celebrity-driven variety show Keep Running.

Similar to Lau, Deng is famous for his strong work ethic, an example being the pains he took to fit his role in director Zhang Yimou’s Shadow. Deng reportedly lost near 45 pounds in two months for the role.

Going Global? Zhang Ziyi vs Liu Yifei

Zhang Ziyi Liu Yifei Chinese Idols

THEN Another of director Zhang Yimou’s frequent collaborators, but best-known for her role in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Zhang Ziyi has starred in a number of critically-acclaimed movies such as the Steven Spielberg-produced Memoirs of a Geisha and Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster. She is also one of the few China-born stars to be nominated for both a Golden Globe Award and a BAFTA. Though her star appears to have faded somewhat in recent years, she is still a Hollywood regular of sorts, appearing in Godzilla: King of the Monsters last year and set to feature in follow up Godzilla Vs. Kong in 2021.

Related: 

Will Disney’s “Mulan” Balancing Act Pay Off?

NOW Currently creating plenty of buzz in Hollywood — albeit not entirely for positive reasons — Liu Yifei is of course the star of Disney’s controversial new Mulan remake.

Wuhan-born Liu rose to popularity in the early 2000s, with a string of acclaimed performances as strong female characters. While her early career was dotted with wuxia and kung fu films — including The Forbidden Kingdom alongside Jackie Chan and Jet Li — she began experimenting with genres in the 2010s, taking on roles in romance dramas. Quite where her career goes from here given the reception to Mulan is unclear, but maybe don’t rule her out of popping up in future Hollywood productions just yet.

Siyuan Meng
    Born and raised in Shaoxing, Siyuan lived in New York and Los Angeles prior to Shanghai. If she is not at work, she is probably at an art museum, a gym, a Mom-and-Pop restaurant or a park. She likes reading books or playing the piano on rainy days. She thinks she takes great photos.